Literal or abstract interpretation?

In 1980, a Yale architecture student named Maya Lin was assigned a project by her professor to create a monument for the veterans of the Vietnam war. Memorial war sculptures at that time were mostly cast as heroic figures, larger than life, with bronzed faces of valor and gallantry. But Maya took a different path, and instead created a shiny black granite wall that simply listed the names of those fallen in the war. From the air, it’s two simple bisecting lines resembled a black scar upon the Earth. She wrote that when she first visited the proposed site, “I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal.” Lin entered that student project into a national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, this very abstract design caused a serious controversy because it didn’t represent what was expected—a literal interpretation of soldiers at that time. But Ms. Lin’s design eventually won out and overcame any resistance because it was too powerful to ignore. The deeper symbolic meanings of earth, sky, endless rows of soldier names, pain, and loss struck a chord with both veterans and the visiting public, and it is one of Washington’s most popular war memorials. In 2006, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was awarded the 25-year design award from the American Institute of Architects as a great design that stood the test of time for 25 years. Interestingly, another sculpture was added near the Wall that is a more traditional representation of soldiers.

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Recently I visited Shanghai, China and I had a chance to see a number of historic sites. I noticed that in addition to the literal interpretations of standing figures with interpretive plaques, they also incorporated abstract interpretations that bore a larger story. For example at Doulan Road, is a small historic street that housed a number of significant writers that launched the New Cultural Movement of the early 20th century, it was filled with a variety of interpretive elements.

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Certainly the statues of authors Ding Lin, Rou Shi, Lu Xun, and Mao Dun were there, but there were also silent memories of their daily lives. A chair and table next to an open window with windblown curtains, frozen images on a masonry wall, or metal cutouts of abstract faces. These freeform sculptures do not recite historical lore; instead they create moods, feelings, and touch some intangible aspect of the subject’s lives. Visitors do not learn about the subject—they feel it. Of course if there is no accompanying narrative for an abstract piece, visitors can end up confused about its meaning (which actually suits many contemporary artists). But Doulan Road had an interesting mix of both literal as well as abstract interpretive elements that created a very dynamic experience.

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Anton Ehrenzweig wrote that “abstract art has helped us to experience the emotional power inherent in pure form.” It may be interesting to incorporate an abstract art piece for the right subject and right place. An old colleague of mine, Ed Blake, once told me to always leave an air of mystery in a design– so that visitors have a reason to come back.

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